Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, The Guardian, July 1, 2021
People across the country are waking up to the reality that Canada is a country built on the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The horrifying reports of unmarked graves of children at residential “schools” in Kamloops, British Columbia, Brandon, Manitoba, and most recently Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan have shocked many Canadians and others around the world. However, these were not discoveries, but confirmations of what we knew all along: Canada was built on genocide.
In light of this, cities and towns across the country are rethinking Canada Day. Some, like Victoria, have cancelled it outright while others, like Iqaluit, are scaling back the celebrations and treating it as a day of reflection and mourning. This is a good thing. Whether they are happening in backyard barbecues in southern Canada or in city council meetings in Nunavut, these conversations about the reality of colonization that is still at the very core of this country are long overdue.
This isn’t ancient history. Nowhere is this more true than in Nunavut, the territory I represent in Canada’s parliament. Until around the 1950s, Inuit lived as they had for thousands of years. Then the Canadian state expanded its presence in the north and colonized the Arctic as part of their drive for natural resources and to claim sovereignty over lands and waters. We were forced into squalid settlements, sled dogs were shot by the Mounties, and children were sent to residential schools that were meant to eradicate Indigenous culture. These joint projects of church and state were hotspots for child abuse and sexual assault carried out by priests and school administrators, most of whom have escaped justice for their crimes.
Fast forward 70 years. Inuit have survived. My people are resilient, strong and proud. Nunavut itself, Canada’s youngest territory, was founded by survivors. They came together and forced the federal institution to recognize Inuit sovereignty. We celebrate this on 9 July, Nunavut Day, the anniversary of the Land Claims Agreement that founded our territory. The federal institution may have failed to assimilate us, but the reality is that Canada is still committing genocide in Nunavut and across the nation.
While the last residential school closed its doors in 1996, the foster care system continues to snatch Indigenous children from their families and communities. More than 50% of children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, but they account for less than 8% of the child population. The intergenerational trauma of colonization and the callous neglect by the federal institution means that suicide is an epidemic and women and girls go missing or are murdered at extremely high rates. As I saw on my tour of some of the poorest communities in Nunavut last summer, far too many Nunavummiut live in homes that are mouldy, overcrowded and unsafe. The cause of this crisis is simple: decades of federal underfunding and neglect.
For all his pretty words, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government have refused to put their money where their mouth is by adequately funding clean drinking water and survivable housing in Nunavut. Indigenous groups across the country are fed up with his many broken promises and symbolic gestures that mask colonial actions like fighting Indigenous children and residential school survivors in court. This is what contemporary colonization looks like: complacency in the face of Indigenous suffering and a refusal to do the bare minimum when it comes to the necessities of life.
These are the things I think of when I think of Canada Day. A history of violence that is not over. This is why I can’t imagine celebrating this country until so many things change. Indigenous people can come to their own conclusions about how they mark this date, but for those of you who are settlers on these lands I am urging you to take this day to learn, to reflect and most importantly to act.
Before I was elected as an MP, I gave a speech in the House of Commons as part of a mock parliament for young women. I spoke of the toll that the suicide crisis has taken on my community and of my lost friends, classmates and teammates and asked, “where are our non-Indigenous allies?” As I ask that question again today, I see more of you and more Canadians from all walks of life waking up and showing up. This is a good shift. Indigenous peoples cannot and should not shoulder these burdens alone. They were imposed on us by Canada, and we need Canadians to play an active role in dismantling them. That means staying angry and standing alongside us to amplify our voices. Above all else, it means listening to us and actually changing things when we tell you that we are hurting.
A good place to start is by getting familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. Talk to your friends and neighbours about the need for real Indigenous justice in Canada. When Indigenous groups organize protests and marches, show up and support them. And make sure your elected representatives know that they will never be re-elected if they are silent in the face of injustice. Sooner or later, when we have an election in this country, refuse to vote for political leaders who talk the talk without walking the walk. If enough people do that, maybe Indigenous peoples can have the right to self-determination, and we will have something to celebrate in this country.